US Air Force says may revisit rocket plan if firms do not respond

WASHINGTON - The US Air Force may have to revisit its strategy to develop a new US-fueled launch vehicle aimed at ending American reliance on Russian rocket engines if US companies fail to bid to build prototypes for the government, a senior general said Tuesday.

Lieutenant General Ellen Pawlikowski, the Air Force's top military acquisition official, said she had received positive feedback from some companies about a draft request for proposals on the Air Force's approach, but other companies were "not so happy". She declined to name the firms.

Air Force Secretary Deborah James last week said the Air Force expects to finalize the terms of the competition by the end of May, and could award contracts for prototypes of new US-fueled launch vehicles as early as September.

Pawlikowski told reporters at a Women in Aerospace conference that the involvement of private firms - Blue Origin run by founder Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk's SpaceX or Space Exploration Technologies - complicated the situation since neither company's engine work relied on government funding.

Responses to the draft request for proposals are due May 11.

The current sole launch provider, United Launch Alliance, a joint venture run by Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co , is working on a new launch vehicle that would be powered by Blue Origin's new BE-4 engine, but it is also working with GenCorp Inc's Aerojet Rocketdyne unit as a back up plan.

Air Force officials say both ULA and SpaceX are potential bidders, as well as Orbital ATK, which builds smaller rockets. Orbital ATK is unlikely to bid, given the requirements for the new launch vehicle, according to industry sources.

The companies have stayed silent thus far about the draft terms of the competition, which seeks to make the prototype launch vehicle designs available to everyone for later competitions.

Pawlikowski said the Air Force planned multiple awards for prototypes, and such contracts generally triggered "much richer"discussions with industry. But she said the Air Force might have to develop an engine on its own if the private companies balked at the terms of the competition.

She said the Air Force wanted at least two commercially viable launch providers to ensure that either firm could fall back on commercial orders if the US government had to scale back its own launches.